One of the perks of being an international mega-celeb like (say) Elton John, is knowing you’ll be allocated the most lavish suite whenever you check in to a luxury hotel.
Yet even Elton must have been surprised at the sheer opulence that greeted him when he was shown into The Palace Suite at Abu Dhabi’s vast Emirates Palace, possibly the most extravagant hotel in the world.
For years the Emirates Palace held the record as the most expensive hotel built, at $4 billion. Its eight storeys stretch over an entire kilometre of prime Arabian Gulf front – 11 times the size of Buckingham Palace.
Marble from 13 countries covers 93,000 square metres of its interior. There’s so much 22-gold leaf decoration (6000 square metres) the hotel employs a full-time gold leaf restoration team. As for that exquisite Swarovski crystal chandelier? There are another 1001, the largest weighing 2.5 tonnes.
Imagine, however that you are being given a rare glimpse of The Palace Suite. This is where Elton, George Michael, Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie all stayed when they were in Abu Dhabi (though not at the same time: just imagine the headlines).
There are 16 exclusive suites at the Emirates Palace available to anyone who can afford up to $US15,000 ($19,300) a night. But, if you are really out to impress, the three-bedroomed Palace Suite is the one to book.
Once the entrance door is opened, expect to gasp. Each regal bedroom seems more outrageous than the last, with its own palatial bathroom and private jacuzzi. The main lounge is “Majlis-style”. But no Bedouin tent ever looked like this.
Then there’s the elegant dining room with “full pantry facilities” – though, of course, a butler service is available 24/7.
As your eyes adjust to yet more marble and 24-carat gold – plus all that exquisitely handmade (if overly ornate) furniture – you might be forgiven for thinking no hotel suite in the world could surpass this.
Yet, here’s the exquisite sting. These 16 luxury suites aren’t even the most exclusive at the Emirates Palace. That honour goes to the six “Ruler” suites on the top floor, and it doesn’t matter how big a celebrity you are, how many hits you’ve had, you won’t be allowed to stay in them unless you are a visiting head of state or government.
So George W Bush, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and John Key, for example, have all been guests in the Ruler suites at one time or another. But Elton will never get an upgrade.
Even if you’re not staying at the Emirates Palace, it’s worth visiting when you are in Abu Dhabi just to enjoy the sense of theatre. As you stroll in, pause under the Grand Atrium dome – the kind of grand architectural statement usually reserved for a Renaissance cathedral or a Moorish mosque.
Now head for Le Cafe, one of the hotel’s 11 restaurants or food-serving bars, and order the signature Golden cappuccino (dusted with edible 24-carat gold instead of chocolate). If you’re lucky enough to arrive for afternoon tea, sample the house gateau (a chocolate mousse sandwich). Topped with what? More edible 24-carat gold.
Gaudy and golden
There’s a magnificent view of the Emirates Palace from Bab al-Qasr, one of the newest of Abu Dhabi’s many five-star hotels.
Built on the West Corniche on land gifted to the late King of Morocco and operated by the Millennium Hotels group, Bab al-Qasr has “Moroccan-influenced architecture”. Don’t imagine the classic beauty of Marrakesh, though: this is a gaudy, golden, twin-towered phallus of a building.
It is much more impressive inside than out. Yes, those are genuine palm trees in the impressively soaring lobby – and the bewildering range of individually decorated rooms and suites are designed to suit the needs of even the most dysfunctional travelling party. (Elton, take note – there are suites large enough to put the children at one end and the band at the other, with a grand piano in the middle.)
Its location is extremely convenient if you’re doing business in Abu Dhabi. Or if you’re on a family stopover holiday on your way to Europe and want a good hotel close to the city’s main tourist attractions with its own private, child-friendly beach and swimming pool.
The hotel’s signature restaurant, Limo, has quickly become Abu Dhabi’s leading (perhaps only?) fine dining option offering “Peruvian with South American flair”.
Privacy is premium
Elton has never stayed at Zaya Nurai Island (named the World’s Leading Luxury Villa Resort in the 2016 World Travel Awards). And if he had, he would have arrived by helicopter as did fellow mega-celebs F1 champion Lewis Hamilton, Orlando Bloom, and Brad and Angelina (before their split). Naturally, there are two helipads to avoid issues of celebrity protocol.
This five-star resort is the brainchild of Nadia Zaal, a successful Emirati businesswoman. Her formula serves two markets on the tacit promise neither will be disturbed. Arabian “locals” and expats come for short stays, while well-heeled US/European/Asian/Australian business giants and celebs book longer vacations.
For the latter, privacy is premium. Such guests book one of Zaya Nurai’s 12 four-bedroomed, five-bathroomed oceanfront Water Villas – each with a private beach, 18-metre infinity pool, patio, sundeck, rooftop barbecue, 24-hour butler service and “a selection of daily newspapers”.
But what does Zaya Nurai Island offer those of us who aren’t constantly pestered by paparazzi? There are cheaper villas, a superb kids’ club (underused when we visited: does everyone bring their own nanny?), four restaurants and a wide range of activities including beach volleyball, paddle boarding, kayaking, yoga and spa.
As for those slumming it in the more affordable (and more romantic) Beach Retreats? Well, a little bit of privacy never hurt anyone.
The writer was a guest of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority and Etihad Airways.
NEED TO KNOW
Emirates Palace West Corniche Road, Abu Dhabi. Tel +971 2 690 9000. Rates per night from $600 for a Coral Double Room to $2050 for a Khaleej Deluxe Suite (breakfast and dinner included with the suite). See kempinski.com/en/abudhabi/emirates-palace/
Bab Al Qasr Hotel Corniche Road West, Abu Dhabi. Tel +971 2 205 3000. Rates per night From $328 for a Club room for two. See millenniumhotels.com/en/abu-dhabi/bab-al-qasr-hotel/
Zaya Nurai Island Resort Sheikh Khalifa Highway, Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi. Tel +971 2 506 6222 Rates per night from $1200 for a Beach Villa (sleeps three) to $12,500 for a five-bedroom Estate Villa (sleeps 10). See zayanuraiisland.com/